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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The lost descendants

Ketaki Sheth’s photo book is a glimpse into the world of the Sidi,a little-known Indian community of African descent

March 17, 2013 2:03:30 am

It usually takes several months and sometimes even a year,for photographer Ketaki Sheth to decide a subject for her personal projects. There have been times when she has abandoned an idea after the initial excitement fizzled out. “Everything looks exciting in the beginning but doesn’t always work. When I looked back after a year of photographing women in the Indian Army,I found my photos uninteresting,and dropped the idea,” she says. Sheth’s next subject,however,stood the test of time making her invest seven years in it. It was the Sidi,a little-known Indian community of African descent,and their untold visual stories that kept her interested and intrigued over the years,culminating into a book titled A Certain Grace: The Sidi,Indians of African Descent. The book will be launched at the Jnanapravaha,Mumbai,as a part of the FOCUS Photography Festival,Mumbai,on March 22.

“There are many academic works on the Sidi online,but I felt the need to visually document a community that Indians hardly know of,” says Sheth who chanced upon a Sidi village deep inside the Gir forest in Gujarat while holidaying with her family in 2005. What initially held her interest was the peculiar location of the village of Sirwan,that surrounded the forest. “I asked for it and found out that it’s a Sidi settlement. The Nawab of Junagadh had given it to the Sidi,who were used to help with hunting,” she says.

Having arrived here 400 years ago,the Sidi today are almost disconnected from their roots except in their dance,Goma. “They are completely Indian like you or me. They speak the local language (Gujarati with a smattering of Swahili,Hindi,Kannada),eat the local cuisine and have embraced local cultures,” she says.

Being an outsider,Sheth’s initiation into the isolated community didn’t come easy. Her entry point into the community circles became Hirbaiben Lobi,a middle-aged Sidi woman,who she describes as “large,somewhat controlling woman with a huge heart”. “I didn’t want to barge into them,” says the 56-year-old Mumbai-based photographer.

Sheth’s initial plan was to photograph the Sidi as a series of portraits. “The faces are extraordinary. There is so much laughter and strength,” she adds. But she changed her mind soon as another world of Sidis — their practice of a peaceful religion and the fervor of their music,song and dance — opened up. Their song and dance is a unique synthesis of Sufi and African traditions,and probably the only connect to their roots. “I realised an important part of them was their way of worship without fanaticism and their music,” she says. The book is hence a combination of portraiture and streetscapes of the Sidi. The 108-page book,priced at Rs 1500 comprises 75 full-size and 13 small photographs in black-and-white.

Even her earlier books,Twinspotting: Photographs of Patel Twins in Britain in 1999 and India and Bombay Mix: Street Photographs in 2007 have stayed away from colour. She attributes this to the two semesters she spent at New York University in the late ’80s,where she role-modelled her style on the black-and-white pictures of great photographers such as Robert Frank and Henry Cartier-Bresson.

Sheth’s book maps the Sidis across the country,from the starting point at Jambur that led to Mumbai,Karnataka and Hyderabad. There are some amusing little stories of the Sidi,who’ve been absorbed in the urban lives of Mumbai. The book features Heena,the daughter of a Bollywood stuntman who lives in Kurla,to the more urbanised couple of Juliana,a casting director of ads and films and Juje,a has-been athlete,who lives in Borivali.

The book’s introduction is written by Mahmood Mamdani,one of the leading intellectuals of Africa today and husband of filmmaker Mira Nair.

The book took two years to find a publisher,till it got the financial support of an African-Indian collaborative bank,and was finally published by Photoink in Delhi.

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